What constitutes jazz composition rarely gets talked about. There is rarely a need.

The basic difficulty is simple enough: what is and isn’t composed. Or what is and isn’t improvised might be another way of looking at the whole subject.

The latter distinction takes into consideration the acceptance that improvisation is a form of collective composition. Jamming tunes and calling the results composition is also sometimes a factor on some records.

Is this better or worse than other more formal forms of composition that combine written and spontaneous elements?

And how does studio composition (ie stitching together many different recordings, overdubs and remixed elements to suit the demands of a record) fit in? Surely this is composition even if it might be seen differently in terms of production or arranging.

Moving beyond what is and isn’t composed to the issue of whether a piece might have jazz sensibility, contain a basic reference to the form, issues like that, is critical too. That’s because if basic reference to a jazz flavour – ie the affinity with some notion of improvisation and a semblance of one or other of jazz-derived forms – isn’t to be discerned then it’s not jazz composition, simple as that. Instead it is another style of notated music or notated music learnt and reproduced even without sheet music in front of the player emanating from another tradition, quite often western classical music.

Memory is more of a factor than whether the music is notated or not. If it’s not sheet music on stands, musicians performing memorised parts of highly elaborate arrangements without deviation from the composed piece is basically the same approach. What is then produced is not an improvisation at all even if it might on the surface seem to be jazz. Highly arranged orchestrated music which more obviously is jazz because of its idiomatic phrasing and syncopated feel and so on actually risks ironing out all semblance of improvisation even with the presence of jazz language.

Even though most jazz listeners assume improvisation is high up the agenda in jazz performance there may well be less of a pure improvisation component than listeners might notice. Even free improv, which injects more spontaneous composition into the raw ingredients of a performance, isn’t completely immune from pre-digested unforgotten routines that are then elaborated on without the audience actually being aware of the process.

How random the music is from performance to performance also matters to some theorists. And this is an important consideration when thinking about how fresh an improvisation actually is. It’s rare (impossible?) for a piece to be completely reimagined from performance to performance even if nothing is quite the same twice and room is made for new treatments which are then delivered.

The whole subject of composition is a subject worth returning to but for now next time you see someone listed as, for instance a guitarist/composer or a pianist/composer think of this: what does composing really mean for a jazz player? And where does the composition end and the improvising really begin? SG

A model of jazz composition, top, from The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963, Impulse!) harnessing group improvisation, African American and Andalusian elements via Ellingtonia and intellectual freedom through discipline and the anarchy of unrivalled virtuosity and imagination

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Broadway Market’s Kansas Smitty’s in east London

Truly neighbourhood Hackney, train and tube stations are a brisk walk or cycle away, head past the Regent’s canal, the barges tied up, the giant gas holders dwarfing the hidden circling streets. 

Co-owned by Jack Abraham and reedist Giacomo Smith, Kansas Smitty’s is approaching its first birthday this spring. Walk in from Broadway Market it’s a regular fairly trendy hipsterish bar on street level, take the stairs down, past the old tape-to-tape recorder placed there as design object the place is kitted out as a very small low-ceilinged jazz club with not a huge amount of circular tables in front of the stand, good sightlines, and clear-as-a-bell natural sound. At the back punters in the corner can lean against an upright piano with its lid down, a Wharfedale speaker propped on top. The toilets have ‘WC Fields’ signs on them. 

Regular jazz nights include the Shed and Basement Tapes sessions, bop, mainstream and trad catered for among the styles, non-musical attractions include poker on offer and plenty of cocktails. You drink wine out of little tumblers. The bar has its house band based around a core of eight players.

Ross Stanley, left, on Hammond organ; Alex Garnett; Smitty’s co-owner Giacomo Smith who announced the band; and Artie Zaitz

With a low ceiling, green painted walls, bulbous lights fixed to the sides, the place pretty dark, a fragrant scent introduced via the air conditioning triggered by a multi-tasking Giacomo, vinyl spinning, the needle lifted and LPs flipped by bar manager Victoria, the place has an easy intimacy.

Playing on this latest running of the Basement Tapes were Alex Garnett on baritone sax, new straightahead guitar hero in the making the south-east London based Grant Green-influenced Artie Zaitz (Exodus), classy Velocity trio and Rebecca Ferguson accompanist Ross Stanley on Hammond B3, and Scott Hamilton drummer Steve Brown. Towards the end of the evening the Zaitz Basement Tapes combo were joined by alto saxophonist Rachael Cohen for a brief guest spot.

The quartet opened up with Garnett’s Golsonian homage ‘So Long’ followed by the flowing mellifluous strains of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Con Alma.’

As the set developed Zaitz quietly asserted himself in the ensemble interplay, tremendous facility as he power slid over the frets, sometimes octave-doubling, sometimes tickling the strings to tease out some new timbral effect, a rootsy downhome feel cultivated and encouraged, the blues never far away whether he was playing standing or preferring to sit, the guitar in his lap, picking out the harmonies tossed over from the Hammond that he simply needed and was compelled musically to respond to. 

The fruity Ronnie Cuber-like personality and sound Garnett on number after number projected allowed for plenty of soul to seep out washed over by velvety glissy sweeps from Stanley while Brown kept very proper time. Zaitz had fun introducing ‘All the Things You Weren’t,’ and later the band soared into overdrive on ‘The Fox’ winning the room over in the second set with the infectious ‘Boogaloo Magoo’ written by Zaitz’s dad.

The inclusion of Neal Hefti’s ‘Lil Darlin’’ from The Atomic Mr Basie didn’t do much for me (it was glacially slow) although this step change applied the brakes successfully enough and a certain relief from the more uptempo numbers momentarily paving the way for the extra motion and skip provided by Rachael Cohen joining for the Afro-Cuban classic ‘Tin Tin Deo,’ Cohen harmonising neatly with Garnett.

Bethnal Green gas holders, near the Regent’s Canal, and close to Broadway market

The audience made their way into the London Fields night with the jaunty melody of Monk’s ‘Bye Ya’ in the air ringing out as much as to say from all the band and the convivial mood of the evening: now don’t be a stranger.

Story/pics: Stephen Graham
The Impossible Gentlemen Tour Dates
Mike Walker, above left, and Gwilym Simcock of The Impossible Gentlemen. Also in the 2016 top 10, albums from the Muthspiel quintet, Logan Richardson, Michelson Morley, Kandace Springs, Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, Hannes Riepler, Empirical, Yussef Kamaal, and Snowpoet

Very easy this year to choose the number one. Remember, however, there is no science in any list only subjectivity. Of the only non 5-star albums that I came across swimming in the oceans of jazz only late-in-the-year arrival Rising Grace by Wolfgang Muthspiel came anywhere close to the Gents’ latest, so it was the runner-up. 

The Gentlemenly ones, led as ever by the Welsh pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock and by the English guitarist and composer Mike Walker, were captured in a wide angle musical lens for the first time. Their third album released during the same week as the Pat Metheny quartet, of which Simcock is a globe-trotting member, played Ronnie Scott’s, the new Impossible Gentlemen line-up this time around introduced reedist Iain Dixon to make the band a regular five piece (his bass clarinet riffing on ‘Speak To Me of Home,’ for instance, is a beaut). Ex-Pat Metheny Group player Steve Rodby makes a big contribution, co-producing the album and playing the role of bass everyman. His fellow American Adam Nussbaum is again a significant strong and brooding presence on drums. They returned to the banks of the Garavogue in spiritual Sligo as band in residence this year for an unprecedented second time at the annual summer school and festival nestling under Ben Bulben and Knocknarea.

Five years since the band debuted out of the Magrittian blue (Jimmy Giuffre legend Steve Swallow was in the original quartet) they returned, horseman pass by, refreshed, and even better on Internationally Recognised Aliens which followed in 2013. But the latest one is the best yet even after loads of listens. Speaking of what’s up this time around: “We really didn’t want this album to be all ‘bells and whistles’ just for the sake of it, so we worked extremely hard to craft the sound of each song, and chose the instrumental colours we felt worked best on a tune-by-tune basis,” Simcock told me from out there on the road with big Pat for an interview that appeared in Jazz Journal in the autumn. 

The Walker-Simcock writing is immaculate and has huge spirit and tenderness to it. Its scope includes a tribute to John Taylor (called ‘It Could Have Been A Simple Goodbye’) who died last year and who Simcock had studied with briefly when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Music. 


1 The Impossible Gentlemen, Let's Get Deluxe, Basho
2 Wolfgang Muthspiel/Ambrose Akinmusire/Brad Mehldau/Larry Grenadier/Brian Blade Rising Grace ECM
Logan Richardson, Shift, Blue Note
Michelson Morley, Strange Courage, Babel
Kandace Springs, Soul Eyes, Blue Note
Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, The Bell, ECM 
Hannes Riepler, Wild Life, Jellymould
Empirical, Connection, Cuneiform
Yussef Kamaal Black Focus, Brownswood
10 Snowpoet, Snowpoet, Two Rivers

There is also a lot of sophisticated but organic overdub production needed because Simcock plays a big range of instruments, including his long cherished French horn plus flugel, accordion, keyboards and synths, vibes and marimba even, as well as his main instrument the piano of which he is a master player.

The folksy goosebumps-inducing ‘Propane Jane’, an affectionate tip of the hat to Basho Records label chief Christine Allen, is one of the standout tunes, Nussbaum’s scuzzily visceral tribal drumming a factor, everyone bouncing off each other as the jam opens up after the deceptively folksy opening. 

While there are many layers to the studio production and a lot of width to the sound the Impossible Gentlemen operate like a small group still. A driving, compulsive, jazz-rock feel retains your interest throughout and there is no machismo anywhere to spoil or swamp the effect but none of these guys are wallflowers either.

Walker sounds much less John Scofield-like these days, long since completely his own man, and has so much coiled power at his disposal that it’s ridiculous and yet he is such a sensitive player when he needs to be as his quieter passages prove. Daring, imaginative stuff, then. Simply a thrill. A lightning strike of an album. 

Other ‘2016 faves’ which gave me a lot of pleasure, maybe they have you too: albums by Logan Richardson, Michelson Morley, Kandace Springs, Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri, Hannes Riepler, Empirical, Yussef Kamaal and Snowpoet.

Disappointments were certainly too few to mention in a quiet jazz year. However, the new Norah Jones, and I do enjoy Norah sing jazz or actually anything at all even the phone book but if push were to come to shove singing The Band fangirl-like with Puss ’n’ Boots especially, was one. Months on since release Day Breaks is simply flying off the shelves, picked up good reviews and will probably be one of the biggest jazz sellers of the year globally when sales are all totted up.

Label count of the 10: Blue Note, 2 for Shift and Soul Eyes; ECM, 2, Rising Grace and The Bell; Babel, 1, Strange Courage; Basho, 1, Let’s Get Deluxe; Jellymould Jazz, 1, Wild Life; Cuneiform, 1 Connection; Brownswood, 1, Black Focus; and Two Rivers, 1, Snow Poet. Sub-genre rough breakdown of the 10: the Gents, eg jazz-rock (1); the Riepler, Richardson and Empirical, hard bop (3); the Michelsons, prog/electronica (1); vocals (chamber eg Snowpoet, classic eg Kandace) (2); chamber-jazz instrumental, the Muthspiel (1); Strata-East-stylee retro 1970s consciousness, the Kamaal (1); and free-jazz/improv, the Smith/Taborn/Maneri (1). 

On the alto saxophonist’s Blue Note debut he keeps A-list company with Pat Metheny and Jason Moran both on the record.

And here, live on tour, the Next Collective Missourian, who started out as a leader with Cerebral Flow on the Catalonian label Fresh Sound New Talent released nine years ago, and whose sideman work includes a spread of album appearances with Mwandishi great Billy Hart, has a band containing two hot young New York scene leaders: the first Nir Felder (you may remember the excellent OKeh outing Golden Age) playing a Strat electric guitar using OP-1 effects via pedalboard and keyboard (the latter coming into its theremin-like own in the second set) for a cloudy cinematic calm; the second the English pianist long since resident in New York, John Escreet.

Lesser known is the lively long haired Late Bloomer drummer Tommy Crane and the hard grooving double bassist Max Mucha from Poland. The quintet played two sets, the tunes unannounced, but the first, the drummer told me during the break, comprised of several tunes run together: that’s ‘Mind Free,’ ‘Creeper,’ ‘Time,’ and ‘In Your Next Life’ all from Shift. The goateed fairly short-haired intellectual-looking Richardson’s writing has plenty of sophistication, is metrically advanced, and is energetic and full of a freebop visceral abandon.

The first set was better than the second even though the second was freer and more open, but more like a lab experiment. The club sound was really good, engineer and announcer Luc Saint-Martin also dimming the lights for purply hues to take the harshness out of the early evening gloom before the band went on.

Felder and Escreet were a formidable harmonic double act: Escreet able to scrunch huge many fingered augmented chords out of the triggered dots and up-tempo sprints that the Richardson charts often demanded, modulating like it’s child’s play. Drummer Crane read the piano lines on a music stand and was a tenacious terrier-like presence in the second set varying texture with good use made especially of a range of different mallets, the tough smaller type detonating ripples of reaction across the band. Richardson can leap piercingly beyond the highest register of his range for more emotion and the tunes have an anthemic melodicism that journey from a Jackie McLean-like swagger to a highly contemporary non-retro sound, Felder’s magisterial command of texture an American Eivind Aarset if you like. Stimulating music. Stephen Graham


Kandace Springs, above, video of the singer performing ‘Place to Hide’ at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which was filmed a few days after the Soho gig reviewed below. Truly a special song, melody and lyrics, singer and song as one. A tearjerker you won't forget.

Sat in a booth by the stage as the club filled, the house Steinway nudged more towards the centre specially for the performance, the double bass of Sam Vickery and then the drums of Luke Flowers set up over towards the curtain that masked the former street entrance, Nashville’s Kandace Springs was on the radar of the late Prince long before any of us would ever know. 

The singer/pianist was returning to the club in front of a largely record biz and press crowd after an earlier warm up gig a few weeks ago before setting off to tour with Gregory Porter. 

Just a day and a half after a show-stealing performance at the Jazz FM Awards in Bloomsbury she was here playing the Soho basement club ahead of the summertime release of Soul Eyes, the title track of her Blue Note Larry Klein-produced label debut, the Mal Waldron words and tune that she sang and played for the second time this week to London audiences, her effortlessly certain sunny blues-drenched mezzo charting a sound that has plenty of room for a big swathe of references stylistically, from an Alicia Keys marker in the curl of her accented beats working back to Roberta Flack and further to the days when jazz, blues and soul were a circle united. She shows they still are even if she is clearly destined for bigger stages and not just as a support.

Accompanying herself with a lightness of touch, a jazz sensibility and more, those augmented chords and knowing progressions part of her cool, maybe playing like Nina Simone would a Billy Taylor tune, she opened with ‘Novocaine Heart’ and besides ‘Soul Eyes’, and with 1970s songwriter Judie Tzuke (‘Stay With Me Till Dawn’) sat in front of her at a little table, ‘Place to Hide’ an instantly lit-up Tzuke co-write with Lucie Silvas and Graham Kearns that seems tailor made for a wider mainstream pop non-jazz public, and which also crops up on the new album, featured.

Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ not on the album and the least effective of an otherwise excellent performance, the artificiality of these occasions notwithstanding, and Hoagy Carmichael jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’ (no, it isn’t all just about your sweet conversation that she conjured best from Ned Washington’s words), a song that Springs told us was inspired by Norah Jones’ example on Come Away With Me and convincingly interpreted in Springs’ own contemporary way.

Springs has a natural looseness in her performance flow and plenty more you suspect that she kept under wraps necessarily with the drummer mainly limited to light brush strokes, the rhythmic lights turned down low in the intimate setting, and a way of caressing the soul, pop or jazz material that shows she’s all natural, her little ankle boots kicking down hard as her band swung and simply grooved to her.

Stephen Graham‭